Jaffer and Guergis: Reliable opportunists are hard to find

Watching the pathetic unraveling of Rahim Jaffer’s efforts to clear himself of what he likes to call phony charges and innuendo, it is getting difficult to actually remember all the lies and deceptions of this once-high profile Harper front man.  The more Jaffer talks (and with him his comically sleazy business partner) the more he reveals himself as a low-life. And really, really stupid. Did he really think the documents proving his falsehoods would never surface? Or that his former Conservative colleagues would continue covering for him? Did he not imagine that someone would have printed off his web site page where he claimed to be able to open doors of the Harper government?

These scandals can sometimes be entertaining to watch as they unfold. But this one is just a descent into bathos.

What no one is talking about in this increasingly bizarre story is the roots of the problem that Harper now has to endure. It is a demonstration of how hard it is to get good quality opportunists to join your party. The same can also be said for Jaffer’s equally incompetent wife. This party is hostile to people of colour (read immigrants) and to women. But to be taken seriously Harper has to have a smattering of both in his caucus to show off when the cameras roll (Guergis sat right behind Harper until her undoing).

The Conservative party is now really just the old Reform Party as all the Red Tories have drifted away and even some blue Tories have trouble stomaching Harper’s government. Occasionally, one of the reform Neanderthals speaks up and exposes the nature of the party – like Gary Breitkreuz who this week called police chiefs a “cult” for supporting gun control and suggested that the Liberal caucus beat their leader “black and blue.” The Reform Party became tagged early on as full of racists and in order to deal with the charge – beyond efforts at shutting the bigots up – Manning and Harper decided it was necessary to recruit some people of colour into the party to demonstrate its “diversity.”
But it was tricky getting people of colour to join a party that anyone who could read knew harboured some of the worst bigots in politics. Finding quality candidates who were willing to overlook the fact that most of their fellow party members wanted to send them “back where they came from” was almost impossible. That left only a pool of ethically-challenged losers and opportunists like Jaffer. But that didn’t matter to Manning or Harper: they were there for show, not for their political smarts or abilities.

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the 1990s writing about and tracking the machinations of the Reform Party when it was run by Preston Manning. Stephen Harper was there, too, of course, the eminence grise of the phony-populist party. It had always been Manning’s plan (read my book Preston Manning and the Reform Party) to create an ideologically pure conservative party – a radically free enterprise party predicated on reducing the role of the state to a minimum. But he knew Canadians wouldn’t accept such a party and his plan was to harness the energy and passion of populism as the vehicle to move his agenda forward. Combining that populist anger with Christian fundamentalism was the key to forming the core base of Reform’s support.  Manning always hoped that corporate interests would see the benefits: his policies were the most pro-business of any party.

But there was a big problem with this strategy. The political base that Manning (and now Harper) would rely on was chockablock with extremists of all sorts: Quebec haters, virulent anti-abortionists, gun nuts, out-and-out racists and white supremacists, homophobes and the worst women-hating dinosaurs of society. He needed them – but he needed them to be silent. Much of Manning’s efforts in the early years of the party were devoted to keeping the extremists quiet and persuading them to drop some of their most radical policy choices.

As long as they were quiet, Manning and Harper would accept anyone in the party – even the members of the white supremacist Heritage Front in Toronto. The party headquarters knew they were members for over a year and only expelled them when the Toronto Star exposed their involvement.  The grass-roots of the party were sometimes scarcely any better – as evidenced by a whole ream of resolutions on immigration that were sent in to the first policy convention in 1991. They called for deporting immigrants convicted of a crime, denying immigrants Charter rights, and forcing them to live in remote areas. Manning had to use all his skills of persuasion to get delegates to moderate the policies. In the early years of the party racist statements of members hurt Reform’s image – as did similar statements regarding women and their claim to equality.

After years of damage control – that hurt the party in Ontario in particular – Manning and Harper decided to start recruiting people of colour (and more women) to run in winnable seats. The Jaffer/Guergis team shows just how risky this strategy can be when you accept candidates from the bottom of the political food chain.

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